Legend has it that Diwali was first celebrated to mark Lord Ram’s return to Ayodhya after spending years in exile. Fast-forward a few centuries to today, and Diwali has become that time of the year when the entire family unites together to celebrate with prayers and lights. For those who are looking to make use of the long Diwali weekend to travel, here are a few suggestions:
Varanasi witnesses true-blue Diwali celebrations, with millions of lights and millions of people. Begin your day with the Ganga Snan (bath in the Ganga) ritual, followed by exploring the bustling street markets selling Diwali sweets and brightly coloured clothes. On a boat ride at sunset, soak in the sight of the lamps by the shore as they slowly illuminate the dark, and the spiritual aura lent by the chants and recitals on the riverside. The festivities culminate in loud and colorful firecrackers being set off in every little lane of the city. Stay a week longer to witness the even more festive Dev Deepavali, ‘the Diwali of Gods’, celebrated as part of the Ganga Mahotsav festival to showcase Varanasi’s cultural heritage.
The city of the Golden Temple is a treat at any time of the year, but particularly so on Diwali, which coincides with the Sikh celebrations of Bandi Chhor Divas. It is celebrated to mark the return of the Sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji, from Mughal imprisonment. Special kirtans (prayers) echo through the city and the Golden Temple is bathed in light – a feast for any photography enthusiast. Club that with the infectious spirit of the people of Punjab, the culinary delights of a typical Amritsari dhaba (eating joint), the cool weather, and the majestic fields of sarson (mustard) in the countryside, and you’ve got yourself a winner.
Lanka, where Sita was kept hostage and Ravana was destroyed in the epic Ramayana, is a symbolic place to celebrate Diwali. Hindus are concentrated in the centre and east of the country, where Diwali revolves around the lighting of lamps and distribution of misiri, figurines of sugar crystals. Witness the relatively quiet festivities on beaches along the island’s east coast, where you can rent a seaside bungalow, snorkel and swim in the Indian Ocean, and indulge in Singhalese cuisine. Join the friendly locals after dark to usher in the festival of lights with colorful ceremonies and rituals performed on the shore. Chances are, you’ll end up in the house of a local for pooja and dinner.
Jaipur and Udaipur
Celebrations in Jaipur start on Dhanteras, the first of the five-day Diwali celebrations. Popular sights like Nahargarh Fort offer enchanting after-dark views of the festivities, including stunning glimpses of the illuminated walled city. The city of Udaipur is equally charming, with its majestic lakes glowing with the reflection cast by palace lights and fireworks, creating endless photo opportunities. You can introduce kids to India’s royal history or send them on a camel ride, and indulge yourself in Marwari delicacies and pick out ethnic Rajasthani souvenirs.
For a quiet Diwali, away from street fairs and firecrackers, visit Purushwadi, a small village located on a hill along the Mumbai-Nashik highway. Families in this little hamlet light a bonfire on Diwali night and cook local food, while children move from door to door, singing traditional songs, inviting each household to pour oil into their oil lamps, mounted atop a handmade bundle of sticks. Immerse in village life by helping the local women make Rangolis (intricate design made on the floors and courtyards of houses using coloured powder), assisting in the rice harvest, going for a dip in the river, chopping wood for the bonfire, and toasting your own barbeque dinner on the bonfire.